The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and 3:10 to Yuma represent two ends of the spectrum for the contemporary western. Yuma employs robust action and a charismatic antihero to explore the wages of courage in a land where the law belongs to the most powerful. The meditative Assassination is about the life of outlaws between gunfights and larcenies, and how their notoriety turned them into the rock stars of their time.
That's why it's so fascinating to watch Brad Pitt as Jesse James. Onscreen, he's the prankster alpha male with a hair-trigger temper. Off-screen, he's a producer and above-the-title marquee name. As Pitt embodies this folk hero and killer riddled by mood swings and conflicting urges, he's also addressing the restrictions of fame and asserting that you should never buy into your own myth. His Jesse is resolutely middle-aged, remorseful and openly questions the value of his exalted position.
As Robert Ford, Casey Affleck also draws on his own history to infuse Bob with the angst of an overlooked youngest son. But Affleck (who gives a breakthrough performance in his brother Ben's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone) also makes Ford a swooning fan of the James brothers mystique, chronicled in his collection of dime novels. When he meets a skeptical Frank (Sam Shepard), he tries to impress him with tales of untapped potential, only to have the elder James declare that Bob gives him "the willies."
Writer-director Andrew Dominik is well aware of how outlaws are mythologized: His first film, Chopper (2000), was based on the life of Australian criminal-turned-author Mark Brandon Read. But he doesn't overplay Bob Ford's adoration and turn him into a demented stalker. Although there is a train robbery, and several stunning bursts of gunplay, most of the film is about the interplay between these wanted men, and the power dynamics of the last James gang.
There's modernity to this plaintive tale that makes it feel more like Badlands (1973) than Unforgiven (1992). The Western landscape is stunning, but Dominik favors close-ups to capture every telling facial twitch of these sullen men, and uses narration drawn from Ron Hansen's novel to help explain the rest.
Even though Dominik can't quite pinpoint what made him an icon, he does make a convincing case that 125 years after his death photo became a best-seller, Jesse James symbolizes America's obsession with fame at any price.